Question #13

Does your research suggest any promising approaches to school improvement?

Our research suggests that the key to better schools is more effective school organization; that the key to more effective school organization is greater school autonomy; and finally, that the key to greater school autonomy is school compe­tition and parental choice. We therefore believe that the most promising ap­proaches to school reform are those that promote competition between schools and that provide parents a choice among schools – for example, magnet school programs, open enrollment systems, and voucher or scholarship plans. Not just any reform that increases competition and choice will do, however. To succeed, an arrangement employing competition and choice must ensure that the systemic forces now discouraging autonomous and effective school organization are fundamentally weakened. In effect, this probably means restructuring today's systems of public education.

The greatest virtue of a system of competition and choice, and the virtue that sets such a system apart from current systems of public education, is that competition and choice make it possible to provide schools autonomy without relinquishing accountability. In a school system organized according to principles of competition and choice, the responsible government authority can permit schools to make virtually all decisions for themselves yet be confident that schools will not generally abuse the vast discretion delegated to them. If the principles of competition and choice are followed closely, schools are not guaranteed students or funds: enrollments and financial support come only when students and their parents choose to use particular schools. Schools that use their control over personnel, curriculum, discipline, and instruction to organize in ways that are displeasing to parents and students – and to teachers – will quickly find themselves struggling to stay open. Schools that use their authority to organize effectively, to provide the kinds of educational gains demanded by parents, will be well-supported. In a system of competition and choice, autonomous schools, schools that are substantially free from top-down regulatory control, are nonetheless, held accountable for their performance.

In public education as it is currently organized, autonomy and accountability work at cross-purposes. Efforts to enhance autonomy come at the expense of accountability, and vice versa. If public education were reorganized so that schools were forced to compete for the support of parents, who had the freedom to choose, autonomy and accountability would work in harmony. Competitive pressures would encourage educational authorities to delegate power to the school level where it could be used most effectively to meet the demands of students and parents. The ability of parents to leave schools that were not meeting their demands would work as a powerful force on schools, holding them accountable for their performance.

To be sure, the accountability that would he provided by market forces in a reorganized system is different from the accountability provided by administrative and political forces in the current system. In a system of competition and choice, schools would be more accountable to students, parents, and teachers, and less accountable to bureaucrats, politicians, and the interest groups that influence them. While that may not be the kind of accountability that school reformers want, it is the only kind of accountability that is fully consistent with school autonomy, and by extension, with more effective school organization and performance.